Rosario Dawson undergoes a startling transformation in Gimme Shelter and delivers a powerful performance as June, an angry, abusive addict and mother of a pregnant, homeless teenager named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who is struggling to survive. Dawson felt a deeply emotional and personal connection to the story and her street-weary character. Along with Hudgens, she was willing to go to the most unattractive places women can go because she felt it was something audiences needed to see. Opening January 24th, the inspiring drama written and directed by Ronald Krauss also features James Earl Jones, Brendan Fraser, Stephanie Szostak, Emily Meade and Ann Dowd.
At the film’s recent press day, Dawson talked about coming full circle from her film debut in Harmony Korine’s disturbing teen drama, Kids, where she played a character not too different from Apple, what caused her to respond so strongly to Krauss’ gritty screenplay, how she rarely broke character during filming, her collaboration with Hudgens, the fight sequences that left her bruised and exhausted, why she felt the film dovetailed well with the outreach work she does, and her latest projects including Raze, Cesar Chavez: An America Hero, Sin City 2, Parts Per Billion, The Captive, and Finally Famous.
QUESTION: I have never seen you so transformed as you are in this performance. It seems like you’ve come full circle since Harmony Korine to now. What is it about your character, her situation and the subject matter that spoke to you and made you want to get involved in this film?
ROSARIO DAWSON: I had a lot of reasons that compelled me to want to be a part of this. My mom was a teenage mom. She got pregnant with me when she was 16. I don’t know my biological father. That could have had a huge impact on my life had it not been for the fact that my dad married my mom when I was one and raised me as his own. He will always be my hero for life because of that, for marrying some woman whose child was not his when she was 18 and he was 21. It’s just remarkable. I have family members who literally struggle with crack addiction, and I’ve seen how destructive that’s been, not only for their relationships and their children and their career, but perpetually even until today because that meant that that person was not there all these years to raise their child and just the damage that it inflicts.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s in New York and watched the epidemic of crack and what that did to entire communities. My mom worked in a shelter when I was 10 called Women’s Inc. in San Francisco. She used to work for Housing Works as well taking people off the street and giving them an opportunity. Just because you have HIV and AIDS doesn’t mean that you’re not a person. It’s about people who see people, poor people helping poor people, and knowing that my mom was not really that much better off than the people that she was helping but that she was that resource.
So much about this really caught my attention, and then, I had to put all of that aside because I’m playing the addict and how disturbing and intense that actually was. I had intellectualized it, but I hadn’t really put myself in that position. This person truly believed that it wasn’t their fault. It’s been all self-denial, lack of responsibility, no self-reflection, and to do so would be so confronting it would probably break her so she just refuses. Anytime that something comes up, you’re looking at this girl’s face breaking in front of you saying, “I can’t live with you. You’re killing me.” And just when you think she’s going to get it, she pushes it aside because it would be too much for her to see. She can’t even be happy for her daughter trying to have something different for herself, because it would again only confront her to realize that she made bad choices that she doesn’t want to look at. I think that’s something relatable to all of us.
My challenge in that was showing the monster that she’s created herself to be, but that that monster has the possibility of living in all of us and that we all can relate to that, and that’s how bad it can actually get. So, talking about Kids, this is Ruby grown up and she’s been wiling out. Maybe she didn’t get HIV/AIDS that test, but what happens next? What life choices does she make at 15, 16 years old that might be for the rest of her life? It’s thinking about playing Mimi (Mimi Marquez in Rent) and it’s really romanticized. Mimi is a stripper who’s addicted to drugs, to heroin, and she finds love, and there’s singing and dancing, and she dies, but she comes back in the end and it’s like, “Yay!” But in this, instead of contracting HIV and AIDS, Mimi gets pregnant and she doesn’t find that chosen family and she ends up in the street and it just spirals from there.
I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to play so many different types of roles that sometimes really do touch on the subject matter and sometimes are completely not about that at all. To have this opportunity to show this other side of it, that’s really important, because there’s going to be a lot of Junes that you’re going to walk by to go into the theater to see this movie. When you walk out, as much as you might have ignored her and stepped over her on your way in, hopefully you’ll see Apple on the way out and you’ll be like, “Hold on a second. Let me see you.” It’s for people who see each other.
Apple was clearly, statistically on the road to being her exact mom if it wasn’t for people stepping in and going, “Hey, little girl, I know the world’s really put you down. You have every right to be angry. You’ve been told since you were a child that mommy and daddy are supposed to love you and take care of you, and that has not been your reality, and I can’t undo that. I know I’m a stranger, and you have no reason to trust me, but I’m telling you, I see you. I care about you. I have a home here. You really don’t have to sleep on the street tonight if you don’t want to. You’re more than welcome.” It’s about the choice that is on both sides, because you can’t take an addict and stick him in a shelter and think it’s going to work out. They have to choose to be there, and there’s such beauty in that connection.
For me, it was so awesome looking at Vanessa on Day One, and she was in it and I was in it, and she wasn’t going to look silly by putting herself out there, because I was going to make sure that the demon that she was running away from was that scary. And, on the other side of it, there was her transformation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to see it in June because you see it enough in Apple that it makes you remember June and go, “Wait! She was also a teenage mom and that could have also been her.” It’s actually shame on you if you just think, “Monster!” and write her off because she’s a person. I think there’s such power in that.
I’m really grateful for Ron (director Ronald Krauss) doing this. He didn’t make it up. He really met these people and did the real thing and made it good. If you try to just write a story about poor girls and crack addiction, you’ve seen that fall on its face in movies before. To dramatize it feels wrong. This was something else. This felt like sharing it. It was really cool to do it with the people there every day and giving their blessing on it. It made it really impactful.
You had some very compelling and violent scenes with Vanessa. Can talk about how the two of you worked together and your collaboration?
DAWSON: I have to say it wasn’t like we ever really talked about it. I think that was important because these two characters are so volatile towards each other and they don’t have that intimacy. There isn’t that safety and connection and communication. It was just an understanding that we were both in it. We could see it every single day. We were both really prepared, and we would just check in with each other to make sure because it was really physical and violent at times. Most of the things that we checked in on were like, “Am I hurting you too much? Are you okay? Are we good for another one?”
I mean, I went home battered. I know she had some bruises, but for me, I got in a lot of fights with this girl. This woman was just all over the place and I was fighting with some of the girls from the shelter who don’t do fight scenes. (Laughs) They don’t realize that my knee doesn’t bend that way. I remember going home after that fight and being in the car and trying to sit in a position where I didn’t hurt and sleeping with pillows in this particular way, because once you start being physical, the pain starts to settle in. I’ve just never felt this kind of pain before. It’s horrible. (Laughs) I did not realize I was signing up for this. But how amazing! I think that again it just continued.
It’s an interesting performance for the two of us because they so need each other. One totally helps and supports the other, but we really did do it at each other. We performed at each other, which was really interesting. It helps that she’s worked with Harmony and I’ve worked with Harmony. We both did Mimi. We have a lot of similarities. We both are very close with our families as well. Our families are incredibly supportive to us and loving towards us, and we both started really early. I started acting at 15 and my parents were completely behind me. And so, she’d have her parents. Her parents would be there. Her sister would be there. We were shooting in New Jersey, and I’d go home every night and see my family.
It was really interesting because we were coming from the total opposite. We had people who totally loved and supported us on a daily basis, and these two characters never had that, like not even being hugged let alone told that you could do anything or be anything. We really were coming from such a similar place that I don’t feel like we had to say anything and we really didn’t. It was powerful. Ron took care of all of that because he’d lived with these people for a long time. He knew the story inside out, and he comes from documentaries so I think he protected us. It felt good.
Have you had a chance to see the final film with an audience and what was the reaction?
DAWSON: No. I saw this in a screening by myself which was a bit rough. I look forward to actually seeing it with an audience and seeing what that’s like. It was really compelling though. It’s very powerful. The thing that I think is just interesting is the feedback that I did get was that they had done a rough cut. We shot this in 2011, and then we did pickups last year, or 2012 actually now. Ron had done a cut of the film and the audiences were like, “We need more June. We need to understand why Apple… We need more.” And so, we ended up doing the scene that’s in the hospital. That wasn’t written. That wasn’t originally in there. That’s like our biggest scene actually.
So Vanessa had to go back in and do that?
DAWSON: Yes, and I had to go back in. It was an 11-page scene. It was just super intense. I remember, and Ron will tell you this, there’s this one moment where he’s sitting and he starts talking to me, and I’m looking at him and I can hear that the set is getting ready, so I just start crying. I’m just keeping it going because I’m in the middle of it. We’re in the middle of the take. I have to. And he just looks at me and he’s like, “Oh, right, okay. I’ll leave you alone now. Sorry!” I’m like, “Thanks. It’s cool. It’s not like you just wrote an 11-page scene you gave me that I have to memorize and do. It’s fine.” It was just so hard and grotesque.
That scene was one that really compelled me. I remembered 24 hours after shooting that, I’m taking a shower and washing my face. My face was in this grimace, and I realized I’ve been contorted for 24 hours. It’s like it really gets to you. Even watching it, you’ll probably be like that because there’s just something about it. I keep saying it’s like Gollum and Precious (in Lord of the Rings). You can be so distorted. It really changes your whole physicality. If you deny something, if you deny your humanity and your self-reflection, you can transform into this beast and not be able to see yourself anymore. I’d be completely… I kept thinking, “She’s Gollum!”
You’re one of those actors who walks the walk and talks the talk. You’re very involved with youth outreach and Boys and Girls Clubs. With your background, were you familiar at all with Kathy DiFiore’s foundation and her work with the homeless before getting involved?
DAWSON: No. I’ve known of organizations like it. I know that they exist. But no, I hadn’t actually heard of her specific one. I’ve always known that there are places for girls who are pregnant. This one was really remarkable. I had not known the story of this, so that was very cool for me to learn about, and it’s right there in New Jersey. It was pretty amazing. Just thinking about it again, my mom was a teenage mom who didn’t have a relationship with my father, and had my grandmother been like, “You’re out!,” we could have very well been in that position as mother-daughter needing some service like that. So, that made me feel really great and happy for the people who can find that because there are still so many on our streets who don’t [have a home].
There’s one that I came across that I really love in San Francisco, actually in the Mission [District]. It’s a homeless shelter for mothers and it’s literally the same thing. They take in homeless youth or girls. I went to visit there, and it’s an amazing facility and so incredible. It’s called the Homeless Prenatal Program and it’s run by Martha Ryan. I met her through Robert Redford and the Sundance Program when they were recognizing different people. I was getting an award for one of the organizations that I work with, and Martha Ryan was getting an award. I met her and I was so blown away by her. This is actually several years ago before we did the film. I said, “You’re doing incredible work. May I please come through?” I’m sensitive to it. It’s just something that I’ve always thought about and I got to see it. They do these beautiful things. They’ll do casts of the bellies of the mothers and stuff like that so they can enjoy, because they’re so scared and they have no recourse, so they never even enjoy their pregnancy. The baby doesn’t get those hormones, that joy. All they get is stress during the entire process. And so, they just help them to have positivity in that whole experience. They help them get jobs and do all that kind of stuff. I was super impressed. Martha Ryan’s Homeless Prenatal Center is just brilliant.
Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
DAWSON: I’ve got a bunch of stuff coming out. I did a cameo for my friend, Zoe Bell. We did Death Proof together. She did this movie, Raze, which she produced and starred in. That just came out this weekend. I’ve got Chavez (Cesar Chavez: An America Hero). That’s just about to come out in March. Sin City 2 (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) is going to be coming out. I’m a scary character in that as well but going in a totally different direction. (Laughs) That comes out in August. I produced a film called Parts Per Billion with Josh Hartnett, Penn Badgley, Teresa Palmer, Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands which was really dope! I was so excited about that. I was like, Yay!” Hopefully, we’re going to find a home for that. I did a film called The Captive with Atom Egoyan that also hopefully will be coming out this year. There’s a short film I did called They Die by Dawn. I also did a movie, Finally Famous, with Chris Rock over the summer. It’s a comedy. I’ll never be able to have hot sauce in public again. Thank you very much, Chris! And that hopefully will be coming out in the fall. So I have a bunch of stuff. And then, Voto Latino, my voting organization, is ten years old this year so I’m going to be doing a lot of stuff with that which should be cool.